The problem with teaching Media in 2017

Homer Mural by Matt Gondek

With the likes of Youtube and Spotify no one is living the same experience

​Media used to be easy. Well, not easy, but certainly easier. When I was first introduced to the idea of studying media I was in grade 11 and believed that Young Guns was the cultural high point of film and that Def Leppard’s Hysteria was just about the greatest record ever. Then I had a teacher who introduced me to a handful of films and musical genres that forced me to see some of my own cultural misgivings.

​But, that was a different time. We had 21 channels to choose from (36 if you went with one of the super bundles), and although there was certainly media beyond the horizon, the media landscape was truthfully, relatively easy to tackle.

I figuratively lived in a small village. My teacher’s job in media was to show me other villages. Albeit, nearby villages.

But, these journeys were made easy because in a world of 21 channels, I had cultural flashpoints on which I could build. Let’s take Casablanca for example. I hadn’t seen it while in high school, but I knew basically what it was about, and I could rhyme off several lines from the film in a desperately-bad Bogart impression. And, it wasn’t just me. We all knew it. Just as we all knew Gone with the Wind, A Rebel without a Cause, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. We hadn’t seen them, but we knew enough about the touchstone moments of culture, so that when I “Iearned” about media, it was accessible. I could allow my eyes to be opened, because I would finally understand my these canonical works were just that. And that is the problem with media today.

Instead of 21 channels, today’s youth have over 300 hours of video being uploaded every minute. My pop culture landscape was a small patch of land with rolling hills. Sure, I knew that off beyond the horizon there were strange guys making strange music with their “Arkestras”, but like pre-colonial Europe, I didn’t know anything about those other cultural landscapes. Today’s youth — as they have been with information — are oversaturated. Just as the internet offers them endless hours of information, Youtube offers them perpetual culture. If I lived in a village, today’s youth live in a multicultural-pluralistic universe.

Case in point. Try to find a cultural touchstone in your secondary classes. When I first started teaching, it was the Simpsons. You could rely on everyone knowing the Simpsons. Now, that is not the case. The memeification of culture means that there is no longer pure pop culture. If culture is merely about small phenomena passed from a few people to a few others, then it is no longer a popular movement, and no longer what Stuart Hall famously called culture “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined”. With the likes of Youtube and Spotify no one is living the same experience.

Media is everything. Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the world as a global village is upon us. And, therein lies the problem with teaching media in 2017. Cooper Smith Koch once wrote that “things that would have never been considered ‘media’ in the past are at the forefront of how we consume information today”.

If we accept that media is everything and is everywhere then how do we teach everything in our English classes? If Hall’s cultural experience can be customized to every consumer, then to whom do I teach media?

In a few keystrokes our students can find any number of rich cultural moments from Le Voyage Dans la Lune to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. But, that is not their culture. Like immigrants to a new land — or me in 1989 — teens find themselves looking for easily digestible culture. So, instead of using the likes of Youtube, Netflix and Spotify to discover Foucault, The Usual Suspects or Sonic Youth they are using those tools to consume celebrity gossip, Friends or whichever musician is cool for the next month. Luckily for all of us, this piece is not a rant against their viewing habits; instead slide through the collection of trending videos on Youtube and one thing becomes perfectly clear to anyone who has taught media: How do I teach this?

Without key cultural footholds, and with media so diverse, how can we teach the fundamentals?

One could argue that as the media turns in its own codes and conventions, to teach codes of conventions of traditional media is a waste. Of course, the other argument is that we need to understand these codes & conventions if we are to break them. And, if we have learned anything from news over the past year, the codes and conventions of the news industry, advertising, marketing and design are being turned on their head. With that said, we don’t want to teach media so that we glamorize the past. I am not sure what I will do if I hear another generation tell me how great Stairway to Heaven is. An ouroboric media makes the explicit teaching of media all the more complicated.

It seems ironic that as English Departments support voice and choice in reading, the plethora of voice and choice available today make the teaching of media so incredibly difficult. Yet, as it becomes more difficult it becomes increasingly more important.

​​

Originally published at lefthandwrites.weebly.com.

When I find time between teaching high school and raising two kids I like to write. I occasionally get published. That’s nice.